Perspective: Paul Fisher, Associate Professor/Extension Specialist

As more growers recapture and reuse irrigation water, they are going to have to become water treatment experts. For three years, Paul Fisher from the University of Florida has been filling this educational void through the Water Education Alliance for Horticulture. In addition to looking to other industries for solutions, this summer he will be attending water treatment classes in Delft, Holland, to learn how growers can set up small-scale water treatment options.

GG: How did the idea for the Water Education Alliance originate?

PF: The idea came from growers in the Young Plant Research Center group. We prioritize projects each year and a top one was developing educational resources for the water treatment of pathogens. Many growers are recirculating irrigation water, using flood floors and benches. Young plants are susceptible to waterborne diseases and growers’ reputations are on the line to deliver healthy plugs and liners. They also were having issues with clogged booms and drippers.

Information is out there from salespeople, but in the absence of data and testing, it’s hard to figure out the pros and cons of different technologies. They all work in some situations but vary widely in cost. Since plant pathologists are already doing good research on waterborne pathogens, we decided to focus our work on treatment systems–economics and engineering questions, the interaction between chlorine and fertilizer, algae and biofilm control.

Water treatment is more like municipal water treatment or swimming pool chemistry than horticulture. It has been helpful to work with chemists and experts who use sensors and technologies in different industries, whether it’s controlling waste management from livestock operations or postharvest washing of fruit to control E.coli.

GG: What have your educational outreach activities been to date?

PF: The mission of the project is to promote water conservation and recycling by growers and provide education on water quality and treatment issues. We’ve had in-person educational workshops in Florida, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Oregon and Ohio. There’s no way to beat face-to-face interaction visiting growers and talking about issues. For half the day we go to greenhouses to see irrigation systems and the other half are presentations. Local university people have helped with programs and we’ve made presentations at industry conferences, such as OFA’s Short Course and the Pest & Production Management Conference hosted by the Society of American Florists.

Last year we had a series of four webinars with 355 registrants. Growers can visit our website, WaterEducationAlliance.org for lots of educational resources, to sign up for our newsletter and find out about upcoming workshops.

GG: How is water use becoming a bigger issue for growers in Florida?

PF: When I came to the University of Florida (UF) in 2006, I wanted to tailor a program to the needs of growers here in this state. The key issues in Florida after the economy and housing crisis relate to water access, reducing runoff and low water quality. Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), UF and growers have worked with the state on best management practices (BMPs). If a grower files a notice of intent to follow BMPs, and is visited and evaluated, there is some protection from liability. The assumption is the grower is in compliance related to pesticide and fertilizer runoff.

In addition to the state, water management districts and municipalities each have their own restrictions. At the state level, EPA has proposed a new set of regulations regulating the levels of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, that are allowed in bodies of water with different uses. Any source of point or nonpoint pollution will be regulated.

These new regulations may supersede the BMP program, which promotes growers using conservation techniques, reducing runoff and using controlled-release fertilizers. We’d rather focus on what growers are doing, their practices and systems instead of trying to measure nonpoint pollution and monitoring runoff, which is challenging and costly. This is a really hot topic. The new regulations are pushing us to the situation growers have in California. Our goal at UF is to help provide growers with feasible solutions to meet environmental standards while remaining profitable.

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